Saturday 22 October 2016

Two hours of Monty Python on acid: Shostakovich's The Nose at Covent Garden

The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Shostakovich The Nose; Martin Winkler, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, John Tomlinson, Rosie Aldridge, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Ingo Metzmacher; Royal Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 19 2016
Star rating: 3.0

Shostakovich's satirical opera re-invented as highly theatrical vaudeville

Martin Winkler - The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Martin Winkler - The Nose © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Barrie Kosky's previous production in the UK included the dramatic and highly sexualised Castor et Pollux (Rameau) for English National Opera and the brilliantly re-conceived Saul (Handel) for Glyndebourne (see my review). So his Covent Garden debut, directing Shostakovich's anarchic and satirical early comedy The Nose, was eagerly anticipated (20 October 2016).

Performed in David Pountney's new English translation (at times more of a version rather than strict translation) with a stellar cast including Martin Winkler, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, John Tomlinson, Rosie Aldridge, Susan Bickley and Ailish Tynan, the opera was conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Sets and lighting were by Klaus Grünberg with Anne Kuhn as associate director, costumes by Buki Shiff and choreography by Otto Pichler.

The absurdist short story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is a satire on Russian society and Shostokovich's opera, using a variety of Gogol stories as source materials, extends this. Though the libretto is ostensibly a satire on the Russia of Tsar Alexander I (reigned 1801-1823), it is allied to music of such startling modernity that it is clear that Shostakovich had his sights on contemporary Soviet society.

Shostakovich's score is a musical twin to the modernism which swept artistic Russia in the 10 years following the revolution before the repressions of Stalin took over. By the time the opera came to be performed this was already starting to be felt, and the piece was dropped after 16 performances, not to be performed again in Russia until 1974.

Barrie Kosky had come up with an anarchic vaudeville, two hours (the three acts play without a break) of organised chaos which mirrored Shostakovich's score.
For Kosky the opera was set in the anti-hero Kovalov's head and the nose was a substitute for a more sexual part of the body, so some of the anarchy represented Kovalov's sexual anxieties. But rather than being theatrically daring the production was content to be grubby and schoolboy-ish in its humour. So the sung text rather over-used the word fuck, and the crazy chase in Act Three culminated in everyone stripping down to their underwear and briefs-clad Martin Winkler's Kovalov being humiliated.

The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Any sense of absurdist satire went out of the windoe and the carefully controlled nature of Shostakovich's score was ignored (the musical anarchy is organised via a set of tight formal structures inspired by Berg). All was surface and we were encouraged in our smutty giggles. That said, the sheer bravura of the staging was amazing. Whatever you think of Kosky's ideas, there is no doubt about his ability to create theatrical dazzle.

It felt like two hours of Monty Python on acid. The production was undoubtedly popular with the audience, but it left me unmoved. There were moments, a group of transvestite dancers (bearded men as chorus girls) invested Pichler's choreography with a sense of brilliant theatricality and the chorus of tap dancing noses was a real high-point and brought back memories of Bloo-Lips tap dancing theatrical anarchy. Some of the quieter moments told too, such as Aiblinger-Sperrhacke singng a folk-song to balalaika accompaniment,

Martin Winkler invested Kovalov with real pathos and intensity, making him rightly the centre of attention and giving a reality to his anxieties. He was well supported by Aiblinger-Sperrhacke as his demented servant, and both articulated the English text superbly. John Tomlinson brought his usual intensity of characterisation to roles as the barber, a newspaper clerk and the doctor who tries to re-attach Kovalov's nose, and Rosie Aldridge made the small role of the barber's wife count. But many of the other roles failed to register as individuals amidst all the theatrical dazzle.

The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
The Nose, The Royal Opera
© ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
In the pit, Ingo Metzmacher and the Royal Opera House orchestra really brought Shostakovich's startling score to life. the piece is a real sonic showpiece with some startling moments of invention (I was disappointed that though we could hear it distinctly, we could not see the flexatone). The production will be well worth catching when it comes on BBC Radio 3.

Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov - Martin Winkler
Ivan Iakovlevitch/Clerk/Doctor - John Tomlinson
Ossipovna/Vendor - Rosie Aldridge
District Inspector - Alexander Kravets
Angry Man in the Cathedral - Alexander Lewis
Ivan - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Iaryshkin - Peter Bronder
Old Countess - Susan Bickley
Pelageya Podtotshina - Helene Schneiderman
Podtotshina's daughter - Ailish Tynan
Ensemble - Daniel Auchincloss, Paul Carey Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Alan Ewing, Hubert Francis, Sion Goronwy, Njabulo Madlala, Charbel Mattar, Samuel Sakker, Michael J. Scott, Nicholas Sharratt, David Shipley, Jeremy White, Simon Wilding, Yuriy Yurchuk

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